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Al Pacino's 10 best films ranked in order of greatness

“The actor becomes an emotional athlete. The process is painful – my personal life suffers.”

Alfredo James Pacino, better known as Al Pacino, is the definition of ‘the man, the myth, the legend’. With his nearly five-decade-long career illuminated by various blockbusters which lay witness to him playing iconic characters with grit and passion, Pacino is one of the very few performers who have received the Triple Crown of Acting.

Born to Sicilian immigrants, he was known as Sonny among his friends, which very interestingly was one of the names of the characters he later played. Although his mother never supported his decision to enrol in a performing arts school, he left home and started financing his career decision by taking up various jobs but never once gave up on his dream. After she died early, at the age of 43, followed by his grandfather, Pacino felt very disillusioned: “I was 22 and the two most influential people in my life had gone, so that sent me into a tailspin,” he once said. Close to his grandmother, he often attributed his success to her as she remained resolute, standing by him, explaining: “My grandmother always came to my shows. She was always concerned about the way I dressed – even later on when I was well known and I supported her.”

Pacino, with relentless ambition, studied method acting under Lee Strassberg. He has been very vocal about the Actors Studio’s contribution to his life as well as Strassberg’s, who, he believes, is not “given the credit he deserves”. Pacino, who performed mainly in dramas and street plays, has always attributed his success to martin Bregman as well. Bregman, who became his manager supposedly discovered him. “I was 26, 25…he discovered me and became my manager,” Pacino once said. “And that’s why I’m here. I owe it to Marty, I really do”.

Their partnership was extremely rewarding as Bregamn remained instrumental in convincing Pacino to agree to films like The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, which became major highlights of his career. After he realised his knack for acting, Pacino decided to pursue it wholeheartedly despite initial hiccups. Francis Ford Coppola first noticed Pacino after seeing him as a heroin addict in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, and despite vehement preposition from the studio, cast him as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, a decision that was symbiotically rewarding. 

Despite several Academy Award nominations for his brilliant performances over many films and distinguished characterisations of heavyweight roles, Pacino received his first Oscar for his role as a troublesome blind army veteran in the 1992 film Scent of a Woman. In his famous acceptance speech, he said: “If you’ll indulge me for a minute—I’m just not used to this, so I had to write this down. I had this thought, and I thought if I ever got up here I would say it. I’ve been very lucky. … And I just can’t forget that girl, and I can’t forget the kids out there who may be thinking tonight that if he can do it, I can do it.” Humble and amicable, he has often said, “I’m an actor, not a star. Stars are people who live in Hollywood and have heart-shaped swimming pools.

Despite being in the constant spotlight and dealing with repeated rumours fuelled by tabloids and with his personal life, this actor has simply gotten better with age and his popularity never seems to wane. As he turns 81 today, this icon of Hollywood continues to be synonymous with the ‘bad boy image’ we all fell in love with. To pay tribute to this legend, we take a look at the 10 best films he has starred in. 

10 best films starring Al Pacino:

10. Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002)

After a 17-year-old girl, Kay Connell, is found murdered in a small Alaskan fishing town, the LAPD sends detectives Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart to investigate the case. Dormer and Eckhart, while dealing with certain professional issues, undertake this case when suddenly a mishap happens which changes Dormer’s life forever. He starts suffering from insomnia due to the constant exposure to the midnight sun as well as due to his overarching guilt which makes him delusional as well. He is soon contacted by the murderer who starts playing mind games with him; soon, Dormer and the murderer begin a mutually beneficial relationship where they keep each other’s secrets to prevent themselves from getting busted. 

Nolan boasts of an extraordinary cast which comprises Al Pacino and Robin Williams in the lead. With the claustrophobic atmosphere nearly overwhelming the viewers, the symbiotic relationship that Pacino and Williams’ characters start is terrifying. Pacino’s gradual descent into guilt, remorse, delusion and desperation leads to titular insomnia. It is a riveting watch with top-notch performances and ominous cinematography which is expected from the likes of Nolan. 

“You don’t get it, do you, Finch? You’re my job. You’re what I’m paid to do. You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber. Reasons for doing what you did? Who gives a fuck?”

9. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)

Martin Scorsese’s old school masterpiece focuses on Frank Sheeran, a truck driver-turned-hitman who works in close proximity with a North-eastern Pennsylvania crime family that is headed by Russell Bufalino. Cold and charismatic, Frank begins “painting houses” which is a code word for contract-killing. Eventually, he is introduced to the fiery Jimmy Hoffa who has close ties with organised crime. Scorsese’s brand-new modernised outlook on the gangster genre is phenomenal and fascinating.

Finely curated, the film boasts of a talented heavyweight ensemble, including Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and more. Pacino is exhausted and vulnerable yet loud and funny juxtaposed to the less-talking-more-active DeNiro who carries out the intense orders without breaking into a cold sweat. Pesci is equally compelling and his mere presence is communicative. Scorsese conveys how the upcoming modernity is changing the ways of the old world and ends the film on a poignant note. As his name rolls out in the credits, it almost harkens to the end of the golden era. Epic and brilliant, it features the dream team while paying a grand homage to the dying genre via the inevitable doom that awaits the ageing characters.

“You don’t know how fast time goes until you get there.”

8. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997)

FBI agent Joseph Pistone, under the alias of Donie Brasco, infiltrates the infamous Bonanno family. He, deftly and quickly, gains the favour of an ageing gangster named Benjamin ‘Lefty’ Ruggiero. As the mafioso and the agent bond and start becoming close friends, the agent’s loyalty as an undercover agent comes into question; it forces him to betray his dearest friend despite knowing that it may lead to the mafioso’s death which might leave him broken beyond means.

Adapted from Pistone’s book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, the film is witness to an electrifying camaraderie shared by Al Pacino and Johnny Depp as the ageing Mafioso and the undercover agent respectively. Subtle and nuanced, the well-crafted portrayal of dysfunctional friendships in organised crime is gut-wrenching; the dilemma between betraying one’s friend and responding to the call of duty is maddening. The final scene, especially, is aching and Pacino’s resignation to his fateful ending has a wonderful and subtle exit, which adds beauty and grace to the already heart-rending film.

“If Donnie called, tell him… tell him that if it was going to be anyone, I’m glad it was him.” 

7. Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)

Based on Peter Maas’ book and as assisted by Frank Serpico, the film revolves around an honest cop’s struggle with deep-seated corruption as he tries to blow the whistle and expose the NYPD for harbouring the ruthless and mercenary police officers. Serpico refuses to extort money from the local criminal underbelly and revolts against it which turns his colleagues against him. He is alienated and constantly transferred from one department to the other. His life is always in danger and even the higher authorities turn down his requests. He refuses to comply and keeps fighting to make his truth be heard until he is shot in the face.

Lumet’s extraordinaire as a powerful and compelling director is proven with this film. Al Pacino, fresh off shooting Coppola’s The Godfather, is passionate and electrifying in his role as the honest Serpico whose honesty is juxtaposed to the corruption that has seeped into the system. He is a brilliant infusion of humour and ferocity as he tries to lay bare the truth. Since the shooting time of the film was constricted by Coppola’s shooting schedule, the team came up with an innovative way to deal with Serpico aka Pacino’s iconic beard they shot the film in reverse where Pacino started with his long hair and beard, then shaved it to a moustache before becoming clean-shaven to shoot the beginning. When required, they would use fake beard and hair to reshoot some of the scenes.  

“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry- it just gets dirtier.”

6. Scent of a Woman (Martin Brest, 1992)

A student at an elite New England prep school, Charlie Simms is a misfit. It is difficult for him to fit in due to the lack of similarity with his schoolmates who are more financially affluent than he is. To be able to afford a plane ticket to his Oregon home, Simms takes up a temporary job as a caregiver to la blind and retired raging alcoholic, the notorious, potty-mouthed Army Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade over the Thanksgiving weekend. As Charlie tries to prevent Frank from engaging in reckless behaviour, the two bond and Charlie can finally sort out his priorities. 

No matter how much you loathe Frank’s obnoxious antics, you cannot help but fall in love with Al Pacino’s smooth-talking, flirtatious and insolent characterisation of Frank. Blind and bold, as he engages in the tango, you cannot help but wish it were you swaying with him. Interestingly, this film helped Pacino bring home his very first and very well-deserved Oscar. One might find themselves sighing in pity over poor Charlie’s predicament while rooting for the duo as they encounter a series of mishaps. 

“If you get all tangled up, just tango on.”

5. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995) 

Neil McCauley is a skilled professional thief who has a crew that aids him in robbing wealthy establishments including banks. When LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna starts investigating the case, he meets McCauley and the two bond over their shared trauma, personal conflicts and more while coming to a peaceful truce. However, when McCauley breaches Hanna’s trust, Hanna is forced to go after him in a fantastic cat-and-mouse chase where games are afoot between the two that only adds to the heightening suspense. 

The restaurant scene between Hanna and McCaulay in the film was, on Pacino’s advice, shot without practice rehearsals to bring out the genuine unfamiliarity between the two characters which added oomph to the already claustrophobic scene. Although Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino had starred in The Godfather Part II, they did not have any scene together. Their brilliant camaraderie as well as the vaulting tension brought out by their characters are palpable. Being intellectually challenging to one another, Pacino and DeNiro’s scenes are poignant and insightful. Devoid of cliches, the film has complex and eloquent dialogues which makes the film nearly poetic. 

“I say what I mean and I do what I say.”

4. Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)

Cuban refugee Tony Montana is granted a green card along with his friends Manny, Angel and Chi-Chi by the infamous Miami drug kingpin Frank Lopez in exchange for their loyal services where they are required to murder a former Cuban general. As Tony starts venturing into the Miami drug trade, he is ruthlessly merciless and kills anyone who stands an obstacle in his path to move forward. Slowly, he becomes a well-known drug lord and controls all cocaine operations; however, his drug-fuelled benders coupled with immense pressure from the police and their hostile relationship with the Colombian drug cartels threaten to ruin his empire. 

Martin Scorsese allegedly told one of the actors that they needed to “be prepared because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood … because it’s about them.” The film sees Al Pacino revel in the grandiose and extravagance of the hypnotic Tony Montana – a role that seems to be tailormade for him. The film boasts of ultra-violence while constantly drawing attention to the impending doom; raging cynicism thins out the line between morality and grandeur. Pacino and De Palma together transcend the tropes of a conventional gangster film, producing a masterfully crafted story of violence and drugs that shall make the viewers shudder. 

“The only thing I got in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break ’em for nobody.”

3. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, 1975) 

Based on a true story in the early 1970s, Sonny, Sal and Stevie attempt to rob a bank; it is later revealed that Sonny needs the money to help his wife Leon undergo a sex change operation. When their plan backfires, they are forced to take the people inside the bank hostage. Sonny, however, displays his kinder side, when he allows the hostages to be treated properly. He soon discovers that there is not much to steal from the bank. Although he carries on bargaining with the police, he demands an aeroplane to fly out of the country in return for the safety of the hostages. 

Although Dustin Hoffman wanted to play Sonny after Pacino initially backed out, scriptwriter Bregman wanted to cast Pacino as he felt that Pacino would bring with him the “vulnerability” and “sensitivity” required for the character. And boy, he was not wrong! It was the first time a film required a mainstream actor to play a gay character and might not have suited Pacino’s interest; Pacino however, attributed his drinking problems to his insolence and reportedly took up the role after he heard that his rival Hoffman was being considered for the role of Sonny. Dedicated to his role, Pacino would barely sleep or eat and take cold showers to bring out Sonny’s dishevelled, exhausted and somewhat rugged appearance. 

“Attica! Attica!”

2. The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Following the events of the first film, the sequel focuses on the early years of Don Vito Corleone as he grew up in Sicily and later in the 1910s New York, portraying how he rose to the ranks of being revered as the Godfather. Meanwhile, in the 1950s, his youngest son, Michael, who has risen to take over the family business by the end of the first film, begins to expand their business in las Vegas, Cuba and Hollywood. He traverses a perilous path beset with betrayals and other family conflicts but is steadfast, cold and ruthless in his journey.  

Sequels can never bring out the same magic as the original, but surprisingly the second film is nearly as beautiful, harrowing and riveting as the first. Al Pacino is exceptional as the calm and calculative Michael Corleone who is the perfect successor to Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone. He rightfully received an Academy Award nomination yet missed out on it. Pacino was indispensable for the film; he made Coppola rewrite the entire script over the weekend as he threatened to quit and later said that he never disliked it but thought Coppola could do better. He was probably not wrong as his portrayal of Michael Corleone is perhaps his finest work to date and it is a shame that the Academy failed to realise it. 

“My father taught me many things here – he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

1. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) 

In his incredible adaptation of the eponymous 1972 Mario Puzo best-selling novel The Godfather, which was released in 1969, Francis Ford Coppola outdid the author. The film, which continues to reign supreme in the hearts of cinephiles and film critics, brought home various awards and accolades. Staying faithful to the source material and working in close collaboration with the author himself, Coppola’s film sees Sicilian Mafioso paterfamilias engage in ferocious battles to assert their dominance that causes family structures to collapse amidst gruesome violence and intense bloodshed. Don Vito Corleone is the alpha male and hopes to see his well-established business be taken over by his worthiest son, most likely Michael. Yet treachery and bloodlust stem from the family itself, disrupting the peace of Godfather’s reign. 

With raging themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and vengeance, the film stars a legendary ensemble including Mario Puzo, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, James Caan and more. The film is Coppola’s masterpiece and boasts of brilliant cinematography as well. A riveting watch, it sees the conglomeration of brutal violence and serious thematic tropes along with pure entertainment. Al Pacino plays the wayward Michael who stumbles upon the criminal underbelly and slowly finds himself spiralling into the world of lies and deceit to fulfil his father’s promise in tune with his destiny. Pacino, who received the Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy, boycotted the Oscars as he felt insulted for not getting a Best Actor nomination despite having more on-screen time than Marlon Brando who portrayed the iconic role of The Godfather.  

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”